The Mask: A Necessary Accessory for COVID-19

When I started graduate school in New York City, my very first assignment was to write an essay so that the school could assess my writing skills. I was considered a foreign student, even though my entire formal education had been in English, and I had spent three years working for an American company in India.

The topic for the essay was to discuss the ethics of administering the smallpox vaccine. I spent an entire day thinking about what to write and came up with nothing. My challenge in writing this essay was that I couldn’t relate to the problem. Honestly, it had never occurred to me that there could be ethical considerations in vaccinating against a highly contagious and deadly viral disease like smallpox. I was vaccinated for smallpox as a child and I have a smallpox vaccine scar on my right arm. Most days I don’t even know it exists. It’s a small souvenir of a time I don’t remember. A time when smallpox was endemic across continents, and greatly feared as there was no cure or treatment, and the mortality rate was reported to be as high as 30 percent. If the infection didn’t kill you, it left you disfigured, blind and sterile. India launched a country-wide vaccination programme in 1962, which was later revised in 1972 in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). It wasn’t until 1977 that smallpox was eradicated from India. Smallpox was a global health crisis that required a global response, and it remains the only human disease to be eradicated globally.

I somehow managed to write a short essay based on my shamefully limited knowledge of the history of smallpox eradication. I still remember the feeling of being confused and unable to comprehend why it wouldn’t be advisable to vaccinate if it was the one thing proven to protect you from a disease with terrible outcomes.

I’m feeling the same inability to understand the refusal to wear masks as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since June 2, 2020, wearing a mask when outside the home is compulsory in Singapore. Non-compliance results in a fine of S$300 (~USD215) for first time offenders, and higher fines or prosecution for repeat offenders.

Even before COVID-19 made the mask a necessary accessory, people with symptoms of a respiratory illness would wear a surgical mask when using public transport, in classrooms, and in offices. I always thought it was a thoughtful gesture. When my friend came to visit my newborn daughter, she wore an N-95 mask because she had a bad cough. We also regularly use masks when the haze descends on our island city and air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. I’ve maintained a small stock of N95 masks since the Southeast Asian haze of 2013. Wearing a mask is not a political act, it is an act of protecting yourself and others around you, especially the elderly and immuocompromised.

I don’t like to wear a mask. It is uncomfortable, and I haven’t found one that fits me well. I find it difficult to breathe when I’m walking briskly, and sometimes it fogs up my glasses. It is inconvenient because I can’t use my smartphone’s facial recognition technology when I’m wearing a mask. It muffles sound and hinders conversation.

However, the simple mask is one of the few tools we have to protect against the spread of a disease we are still studying and uncovering. Until we have a more complete understanding of the disease, I’m going to wear my mask and keep breathing. Hopefully, the mask on my face, like the smallpox vaccine scar on my arm, will soon become a small souvenir of a time gone by. But this time, I will remember.

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